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Motivation and burnout in academia

2 Sep 2021 22:31 | Amanda Kovalczuk

by Amanda Kovalczuk (amandakovalczuk@gmail.com) and Izabela Zonato (izabelazonato@gmail.com)

The ideas for writing this text came up in a conversation between the two of us, Izabela and Amanda – both master’s students at the IISL from classes of 2018 and 2019, respectively – about how to manage the pressures for publishing in academia. Our main concern was, in a time in which budget restriction and job insecurity hassle Brazilian academics and postgraduates, how to find balance between putting ideas out to the public and thoroughly processing data analyses and results. While the first often stands as a requirement for academics, it is no surprise that drastic cuts in funding, as well as the effects of the Covid crisis in the country, are severely affecting academic performance and health of Brazilian students. In face of that, we decided to put together a text, suggesting our guiding question as follows: is there a way to keep up to excellence standards in academia, while still conserving a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment within the difficult conditions that are posed? Can our writing process still be carried out as an enriching experience, other than simply responding to pressures for publication and risking burnout? 

At the time we had our conversation, Izabela was reading The Burnout Society, by the Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han (2015). Amanda, on the other hand, had just came across a beautiful piece by the black, lesbian feminist Audre Lorde (1991), in which the author addressed uses of the erotic. We gathered the reflections both authors inspired us to elaborate in this short text. We depart from Audre Lorde’s perspective on the erotic as a creative life force that moves towards excellence and self-affirmation, and from the conception of burnout as an exhaustive state of hyperactivity and self-referentiality, as suggested by Byung-Chul Han. Considering the difficulties for the first to thrive in the face of the conditions imposed by the latter, we situate these reflections in the Brazilian academic context.

According to Lorde (1991), the erotic is a deeply female (though not in an essentialist fashion), commonly unrecognized and unused resource that touches the spiritual, the physical, and the emotional realm. For her, the Western society is rooted in “the suppression of the erotic in our lives” (1991, p. 88), as it naturalizes a system that “robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment” (1991, p. 89).

The erotic, for Lorde, beyond any sexual meaning, conveys a creative, living force that encourages a self-affirmative posture that can be present each everyday activity. It consists of “an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire” (Lorde, 1991, p. 88). This internal sense of satisfaction and completion can be made conscious in every activity we engage in, as it is not related to the character of the activity itself, rather to one’s implication in it. Likewise, it can also be used to encourage excellence in everything we do, such as work and writing processes, and is most fostered by sharing deeply with others. As the author explains, “within the celebration of the erotic in all our endeavors, my work becomes a conscious decision – a longed-for bed which I enter gratefully and from which I rise up empowered” (Lorde, 1991, p. 88).

The current Brazilian academic context, however, boosts anything but an erotic working process. In face of funding cuts, and of an increasingly scarce prospect of teaching positions, competition and hyperproductivity are fostered. While some postgraduate students simply decide to refocus and pursue non-academic careers, those who remain are eager to answer questions such as this: how will some of us be able to succeed and fill in such scarce positions in universities? What should one do in order to stand out? A general feeling of burnout is then stimulated: not an individual, psychological condition, but a systemically induced fatigue that relates to a general sense of acceleration and hyperactivity, as if they were the only path for succeeding. 

In Byung-Chul Han’s interpretation (2015), we live in a performance society that leads to a depressive state in which the late-modern subjects tend to feel like losers. They inhabit a social unconscious that feeds a constant seek for productivity, while paradoxically produces tiredness. Thistiredness, in the terms posed by Byung-Chul Han (2015), has also relational consequences, as it is a lonely, individualist, and isolated state.

Tiredness and insufficiency are then produced in a never-ending process of escalation of achievement expectations. In it, the feeling of completion in having reached a goal is never present. Feeling that no achievement is enough, and no final goal exists, the late-modern individual is incapable to rest and to appreciate what has already been accomplished, living in constant shame for what has not yet been done (Han, 2015).

Byung-Chul Han (2015) suggests that, lacking awareness of the consequences of these processes, the achievement-subjects are unable to say no. They constantly believe themselves to be capable of doing anything, and tend to live in a state of self-comparison. They push themselves to overcome their own capacities until they reach a psychic collapse state - the burnout. The burnout, in that sense, stands as the pathological consequence of self-exploitation.

By considering both Byung-Chul Han’s and Audre Lorde’s works integratedly, and in the face of achievement-oriented practices in some academic spaces, we suggest that the overworking state in which many postgraduate students find themselves often prevents the time to seek pleasure and emotional connection. In Lorde’s (1991) terms, it may leave us less erotic, and less conscious in our myriad daily activities - even in our own research and writing processes. Likewise, as posed by Han (2015, p. 18), we often may find ourselves in a fleeting state, in which we lack vigor, and in which “merely working and merely living define and condition each other”.

We started this text by posing some quite ambitious questions. While we surely do not have the answers for that, we were willing to offer our reflections on the issue. We also intended to publicly remark that, perhaps quite ironically, a quite important part of young researchers like ourselves have pursued academic careers because we saw in it a space where we could explore our restless curiosity towards the social world. We shared, in the words of Audre Lord (1991), an eros in our intellectual activity. We may not know exactly how it may keep flourishing in times like these, but we are sure that making our individual creative process collective may be a first successful step towards it.

We are looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter.


Han, B. C. (2015). The burnout society. Stanford California Press.

Lorde, A. (1991). The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. In Gray, P. H. The uses of theory. Text and Performance Quarterly, 11(3), 267–277. https://doi.org/10.1080/10462939109366014.

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